There was a time when Christmas meant a new Patricia Cornwell. I’d be so excited I’d even fork out for the hardcover—and I hate hardcovers. Then Cornwell went off the boil and I, well, fell off the Kay Scarpetta-worshipping wagon. Which is why I hadn’t realised Cornwell had penned some Scarpetta novels in recent years—I’d tuned out and the media had, arguably, stopped heralding her instalments’ releases (they were probably off spruiking Fitty Shades and its stable of spin-offs).
It’s telling that the cover testimonial reads ‘A welcome return to form for Dr Kay Scarpetta’ (read: We know she lost the plot a few books back, but trust us, it’s clear Cornwell’s publisher’s told her to cut the crap and churn out tales that fit with her tried-and-true Scarpetta formula). So, burnt by Cornwell in the past but ever hopeful that she’d resurrect the Scarpetta series to do it justice, I selected Port Mortuary from the shelf.
The book starts with Scarpetta completing a fellowship at a military morgue-like facility. Post-mortem examinations have moved high-tech and Scarpetta is learning how to incorporate CTs, MRIs, and the like into her work. She’s also about to head up a new facility that mixes private and military procedures and work. How that’s supposed to play out, no one quite knows, and I’ve got to admit that I was more than slightly incredulous that one of the book’s key pivots was that Scarpetta wasn’t there for the first six months of this highly experimental, endlessly complex facility was open.
In fact, some plot points and their justifications or threading together are tenuous at best, perhaps showing that:
a) Cornwell’s still a few degrees shy of boiling point
b) the Scarpetta series has just about reached its limits
c) Cornwell’s high-profile personal and business dramas, which include her suing former financial managers for mismanaging her money, have distracted from her writing
d) I wasn’t paying close enough attention and missed some key explanatory text
e) I’m a bit older, wiser, and more cynical in my approach to Cornwell’s books
f) it’s a likely combination of a–e.
Scarpetta married her on-again-off-again and at-one-stage-thought-dead lover, Benton Wesley, a few books back, so the best Cornwell could do was milk a tired cliché: make Wesley seem to be keeping secrets from Scarpetta. That’s a plot device Cornwell was sure to pound us with at least six or seven times throughout the book—often when she was trying to make improbable plot leaps or to disguise the fact that the link between or explanation of said points was a bit wobbly.
It was a bit too convenient that everyone was, yet again, trying to keep Scarpetta out of the loop (convenience aside, it’s hard to fathom the characters hadn’t worked out that things ran more smoothly and crimes were solved when Scarpetta was kept abreast of all goings on). It was a bit too unbelievable that Wesley, her niece Lucy, and stalwart Pete Marino (AKA the only trio that she could possibly trust ever) were also conspiring to keep her in the dark.
And, without giving too much away, who the killer was turned out to be a little too clichéd and their motivations not well enough explained for my liking. Instead of wrapping up the book definitively, I felt that the killer’s unveiling revealed further plot weaknesses and gaps.
But for all my grumping, I relaxed into Port Mortuary (or as much as anyone can relax into a book about medical examiners and killers exacting horrors on unsuspecting victims). I’d missed Scarpetta in recent years, grieved over the fact that I thought she was gone (and I mean gone in the sense that the books were no longer worth reading rather than Cornwell’s decision to end the character’s journey) and there was enough in Port Mortuary to pique my interest and make me see the mystery solving through to the end. There was also enough to make me know I’ll select future Cornwell books from the shelf, as long as they come with assurances that they’re a ‘welcome return to form [or agreement not to stray from the accepted formula] for Dr Kay Scarpetta’.*
*It looks as though Bone Bed is the most recent. Published in 2012 (as opposed to Port Mortuary‘s 2010), Scarpetta is faced with the following:
A woman has vanished while digging a dinosaur bone bed in the remote wilderness of Canada. Somehow, the only evidence has made its way to the inbox of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, over two thousand miles away in Boston. She has no idea why. But as events unfold with alarming speed, Scarpetta begins to suspect the palentologist’s disappearance is connected to a series of crimes much closer to home: a gruesome murder, inexplicable tortures, and trace evidence from the last living creatures of the dinosaur age.
Unfortunately, it looks as though the annoying secret keeping by those closest to her is set to continue:
When she turns to those around her, Scarpetta finds that the danger and suspicion have penetrated even her closest circles. Her niece Lucy speaks in riddles. Her lead investigator Pete Marino and FBI husband Benton Wesley have secrets of their own. Feeling alone and betrayed, Scarpetta is tempted by someone from her past as she tracks a killer both cunning and cruel.